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Samsung's Galaxy S9 launch sprinkled 'AR magic' into my hands

This is what it's like to attend one of the biggest tech events and the marquee conference at the Mobile World Congress trade show.
For the last several hours, my Samsung media badge was, well, a plain media badge: a rectangular piece of cardboard with rounded edges connected to a plastic clip and lanyard that hung around my neck, like so many press credentials I've collected over the years.
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A digital rendering of the Galaxy S9, courtesy of my media badge.
Roger Cheng/CNET
Its seemingly sole value was the ability to get me into Samsung's launch of the Galaxy S9, held Sunday on the eve of the Mobile World Congress 2018 trade show in Barcelona.
But with a hover of my iPhone X'scamera over it, the badge suddenly transformed into a digital rendering of a Galaxy S9 -- and a prime example of a technology called augmented reality, which overlays digital images over the real world. In this case, on the display of my own phone was Samsung's latest flagship device. I could move it side to side, or raise it for a closeup. When I flipped the badge around, I got a rendering of the back of the phone.
It's the latest trick from Samsung's showmanship playbook, which over the years has put interesting spins on the staid and formulaic tech product launch with its "Unpacked" events. Given that many of the Galaxy S9 details leaked ahead of time, and that the launch of Apple's iPhone X is still fresh in many people's minds, Samsung needed to make a strong impression.
"I actually thought they did quite well as far as energy, considering how much of it was already known," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies.
That its most memorable stunt involved augmented reality underscores Samsung big move in this area, particularly with the AR emojis found in the new phones. The allure of AR has swept up some of the largest players in tech, including MicrosoftGoogle and Apple. Consider, for example, the animojis that Apple broughtexclusively to its iPhone X when that top-of-the-line device went on sale toward the end of last year.
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The event also marked a return to Barcelona for Samsung, which has traditionally used MWC as its platform for the global launch of the newest members of its successful Galaxy S franchise. Last year, Samsung opted to hold a separate event in New York after the conference, allowing other phones to take the MWC spotlight -- notably the nostalgia-tapping Nokia 3310, the BlackBerry KeyOne and the LG G6.
This time around, the Galaxy S9's presence led to most companies saving their best phones for later.

Early bird

Unpredictability is a common trait when it comes to big product launches like these, so I lined up at the gates of the Fira Montjuic convention hall in central Barcelona three hours early. Yes, three hours. Already ahead of me were 10 people, including a rowdy group of foreign bloggers who regularly shouted a countdown as if the gates were opening, only to have security guards behind the metal barriers shake their heads. The stunt was funny the first time they did it. 
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The media badge for the Galaxy S9 launch event. 
Roger Cheng/CNET
After they began letting us in, my colleagues and I made a beeline for the main hall along a path flanked by two rows of waitresses with hors d'oeuvres and drinks. Near the back of the outside area was a row of Samsung employees with white jackets and black pants forming a human barrier protecting a light-up daffodil sculpture.
We gave all that hardly a glance as we entered the hall, a gigantic hangar setup with rows of chairs forming an octagon-like ring around a square black stage. Hanging above the stage were four massive black displays, each facing a different side, ensuring there would be no bad seats.
Periodically, a Samsung representative would come on to the stage and remind us to download the Unpacked 2018 app, which would be necessary to "experience the magic of augmented reality."
I scoffed at the overused buzzword "magic."
But I was glad the app was on my phone when Justin Denison, senior vice president of product strategy and marketing for Samsung's US unit, told us to open it and point my phone's camera at the badge.
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DJ Koh, the head of Samsung's mobile business, kicks off the presentation with an introduction. 
Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
"There you have it folks, your first personal sneak preview of the Galaxy S9," Denison said amid a few oohs and aahs from the crowd. 
It's one way to throw a bone to the more impatient members of the audience. 
"That was a cute way to actually get closer to a phone," Milanesi said.
The presentation wrapped up with those white-jacketed Samsung-paid reps marching up on stage and dancing to Aston Merrygold's "Get Stupid," before walking down toward the product showcase area. 

Like old times

In some ways, the Galaxy S9 launch felt similar to the release of 2016's Galaxy S7 -- the last time Samsung held a big phone release in Barcelona.
The event featured a similar layout with a central stage surrounded by multiple rows of chairs. That year's twist involved virtual reality -- you put on a Gear VR headset to experience part of the presentation. But the biggest shock came when we lifted the headsets off, only to find Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had strode onto the stage without our knowledge.  
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A wall of Samsung employees kept us from going too far astray at the Samsung Galaxy S9 launch event. 
Roger Cheng/CNET
Last year's Unpacked events ran the gamut. There was an MWC show most memorable for the unexpected visit by Greenpeace protestors. (There were some forgettable tablets, too.)  Then came the more straightforward launch of the Galaxy S8, which took place in New York's Lincoln Center. The company was trying to rehabilitate its reputation and bring the buzz back to its name after the Galaxy Note 7, which had an unhealthy tendency to overheat and catch fire. There were fewer gimmicks during the presentation, in which the company played it safe and kept its focus on the phone's new edge-to-edge "Infinity Display." It did offer a stunning video display that flowed from the back of the stage toward the ceiling, creating a wraparound visual effect. 
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The entire stage, from the floor to the screen behind it, worked together as a massive screen. 
Sarah Tew/CNET
But by August, the old Samsung was back with its dramatic flair at its Galaxy Note 8 launch in New York's Park Avenue Armory. The company paired two giant backdrop displays with special floor tiles embedded with tiny LEDs, allowing it to create a single, seamless image of Manhattan, with the Hudson River flowing onto the stage floor and right to the stadium risers. It was a unique illusion that had attendees as interested in the floor as in the new phone.
This year's presentation lacked that visual pizazz, but included more interactive elements like a booth set run by YouTube stars The Slow Mo Guys to highlight the phone's "Super Slow-Mo" capability, which captures video at 960 frames per second, compared with the iPhone's 240 frames per second. 
"The experience has to be something different than what you can get online," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research. "Samsung delivered a few that made it worth being there."
So while Sunday's event didn't have me walking on water, it did, for a brief moment, let me hold a digital Galaxy S9 in my hands. In some ways, it was more interesting than the real thing.
Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus: Hands-on with Samsung's iPhone X fighters.
MWC 2018: All of CNET's coverage from the biggest phone show of the year.

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